A few weeks ago, Tampa clinical psychologist and Personal Best columnist Lavinia Rodriguez wrote about the bias faced by people who are obese. She described this as the last socially acceptable prejudice — so acceptable that she sees patients who viciously berate themselves for their dieting failures. This, no surprise, is not an attitude that inspires healthy and lasting weight loss.
Lavinia and I both got responses that were a little startling. One man e-mailed her to say she was being too nice to fat people who, in his estimation, have a variety of negative traits that I had some trouble interpreting through all the misspellings in his e-mail. I got a call from another man informing me of scientific proof that we are genetically programmed to dislike fat people. This proof had something to do with ink blot tests, but I must confess I found the direction of the conversation so discouraging I may not have been paying close attention.
One of the strangest things about size prejudice is that those who practice it may even believe that they are being helpful to their target, as if they're staging their own little public health intervention every time they sneer at a fat guy on an airplane who's spilling over the armrest.
Alas, that guy knows he's fat, and he knows the sneerers don't like him. And according to a new study out of Purdue University, the sneering could hurt more than his feelings.
"We found that around a third of the severely obese people in the United States report facing some form of discriminatory experience, and the experience of weight discrimination plays into people's own perspective about their weight,'' said Markus H. Schafer, the doctoral student who led the study. "It seems that many people are internalizing the prejudice and stigma they feel, and it contributes to stress, which ultimately affects their health."
The study, published in Social Psychology Quarterly this month, looked at more than 1,500 people, ages 25-74, who were surveyed in 1995 and 2005 as part of the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States.
Yes, the obese people tended to have poorer overall health than thinner counterparts. But those who reported weight discrimination had the sharpest decline in their ability to do tasks like climb stairs and carry things, considered a key measure of health.
"This is an interesting paradox because as the rates of obesity rise in this country, one might expect that anti-fat prejudice would decline,'' noted Purdue sociology professor Kenneth F. Ferraro.
Yet another public health crisis that won't be cured with discrimination.
Charlotte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8425.